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By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
New Adventures in Hi-Fi
Midway through R.E.M.'s new album, a perplexed Michael Stipe figuratively rubs his big, bald head and ponders, "This fate thing. I don't get it."
Welcome to the occupation, Michael.
Stipe's professed befuddlement is understandable. After all, he and two of his bandmates, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry, spent time in the hospital during R.E.M.'s world tour last year, with Berry playing an especially dicey game of touch and go with a brain aneurysm.
Such misfortune amid an otherwise wildly successful road trip would be enough to goose any millionaire rock star's muse. For Stipe, who's blessed with one of the most kinetic and creative mindsets in modern rock, the adversity of the past year plays out in complex, quizzical patterns. The resulting slew of question marks flashes like jagged lightning on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, R.E.M.'s tenth album and one of the band's moodiest outings in recent years.
Stipe wastes little time in setting Hi-Fi's meditative mood. "This story is a sad one told many times/The story of my life in trying times," he sings on the opening cut, "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us." The song unfolds in decidedly nontraditional R.E.M. fashion, moving in slow, minimal thrusts with nary a jangly guitar in sight. Stipe later goes from staring at the mirror to glaring at the heavens on "New Test Leper," a swaying, guitar-textured song suffused with a skeptical Stipe losing his religion: "You are lost and disillusioned," he sings, aping the exhorts of a TV evangelist, but then admonishes himself, "What an awful thing to say."
The next song, "Undertow," is another slow-paced number that finds Stipe again wagging a cold, bony finger at the twitchy hand of God. "This is not my time," Stipe sings with defiance, adding, "I don't need heaven/I don't need religion/I am in the place I should be/I'm drowning."
When Stipe isn't contemplating the finer points of cosmology, he's bellyaching about the vagaries of fame. "The Wake-Up Bomb," one of the disc's catchier and more visceral songs, finds Stipe bitching, "I had to teach the world to sing by the age of 21 . . . /I threw up when I saw what I'd done."
By song's end, the reluctant rock star sniffs, "See ya, don't want to be ya," a trite little message that seems aimed at fawning sycophants and lesser rock acts.
Stipe's enigmatic evocations can be cryptic beyond comprehension, even when you can clearly make out what he's singing. But every word Stipe utters is charged with a sense of import simply by the tone and timbre of his voice. He's got an inherently sorrowful set of pipes--a natural howl--and his voice has always been the most potent instrument in the R.E.M. mix. His guttural growls and grumbles make up the high points of Hi-Fi, especially since the backing music is so minimal.
Guitarist Peter Buck's by-now-legendary post-Byrdsian Rickenbacker ring--the sound that launched a million guitar bands in the '80s--is long gone from the new CD, replaced by acoustic strums and digitally altered chords. The only hitch in the leaner, more austere sound comes when Buck and band get a little too artsy for their own good, as on the atonal interlude that vivisects "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us," and the goofy, tiki-type instrumental "Zither," which sounds better suited for some watered-down Cocktail Nation anthology.
Hi-Fi also misses on "Low Desert," an up-tempo tune that force-feeds psychedelic touches with near-boogie beats. It's an unfortunate formula made extra curious considering R.E.M.'s early and mostly successful efforts to remove such sounds from the Southern Rock gene pool.
"Low Desert" was recorded at a sound check before a show last year in Atlanta, Georgia, so maybe osmosis is the excuse for its apparent Allman Brothers influence. Hi-Fi's 14 songs were all recorded on the road during the eventful Monster tour, with taping done at various studios, sound checks and dressing rooms. Longtime producer Scott Litt played the part of cosmetic surgeon, nipping and tucking the tapes into shape and removing any hint of their origins. (Two of the new songs, the poppy "Binky the Doorman" and the CD's closing cut, "Electrolite," came from the band's Phoenix stop last fall at Desert Sky Pavilion.)
The road recordings give Hi-Fi a casual if oddly urgent sense of spontaneity, mixed with a weariness that hangs from both Stipe and the band, a feeling that it's past time to pull back and take stock. And after recently signing a multiyear deal with Warner Bros. for a reported $80 million, R.E.M. now has plenty of stock to look after.
Still, when Stipe sings, "To suffer the dreams of a world gone mad/I like it like that and I know it," on the aptly titled "Leave," it's apparent that he and his buddies won't be gone for long. They know where their checks come from. And though Stipe later sings, "I lost myself in fame . . . /I long for my release," he closes the album by considering the hazy magic of fame on "Electrolite."
"I'm gasoline/I'm burning clean," he concludes, his words a promise that R.E.M. still has plenty of life left whenever the band decides to resurrect itself. Stipe's final words, sung alone to his own echo: "I'm not scared/I'm outta here.